The Islamic State has become the box office busting sequel of Al-Qaeda, not just for it’s military conquests but for also creating one of the most effective marketing campaigns in military history. And it shows, it’s enemies have bought the hype that the Islamic State is bigger and stronger than it actually is. Not to mention a recruiting campaign that is recruiting fighters as fast as the US can bomb them. Suffice to say IS does marketing right, and it’s tactics offers the lessons to defeat it.
A Cohesive Narrative Strategy
I’ve mentioned before how ISIS are like Nazis, in their quick ascent to power. However, this narrative of success isn’t just for the bad guys. It’s a narrative that many celebrities and corporations have used to their success. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Pratt have enjoyed this narrative with their breakout roles after years of building up their acting chops and personal narratives. Corporations including Apple, Facebook and many other modern startups. We enjoy seemingly easy victories with the afterthought that they worked hard to make it happen.
With this effective narrative, ISIS have all the checkmarks of an effective corporate narrative. Their self-declared Caliphate is akin to a company going public, and each major victory i.e. the takeover of Mosul or Palmyra is akin to a new product release. They’re the hottest new startup in the terrorist world, and the media attention on them shows.
While, it’s endgame is maybe a bit more climatic and destructive than what most organizations desire, i.e. apocalypse in Dabiq. Most organizations want a “Boyhood” narrative not “Dr. Strangelove” it’s likely that unless that the US and regional players shape up and learn to work together, ISIS can survive on it’s compelling narrative for awhile.
The declaration of the Caliphate
Now, as a great man once said, “Often, the most barbaric atrocities occur when both combatants proclaim themselves freedom fighters.” this man went on to star in National Treasure. The point is, that the reason why irregular military groups give themselves kickass names like the “Lord’s Resistance Army” or the “Revolutionary United Front” is branding to make themselves look more noble than they actually are.
IS declaring it’s the caliphate and renaming itself the “Islamic State” is the most Islamic name any Islamic entity can have. While it was a strategic mistake, as it alienated practically every other Jihadist group, as a Caliphate means that IS declared themselves the top honchos of Islam. It would be like if Italy renamed itself the Roman Empire with the imperial ambitions to unify the Mediterranean again.
By calling themselves by a name which hearkens back to a golden age of Islam, as opposed to one of the many other rebel groups, ISIS managed to capture an incredibly powerful vision which could appeal to all muslims (the ones they aren’t actively trying to kill that is). It’s a tolkienist fantasy, and who doesn’t want to live one? The 20,000 worldwide recruits coming into Syria for one thing.
Social Media Narrative
ISIS marketing campaign is slick and it’s sophistication puts many social media gurus to shame. They are engaging heavily on Twitter, developed an app, an online magazine, they even have an online store for ISIS hoodies.
In fact, one of the primary reasons why ISIS is gaining so many recruits is because recruits that would have otherwise gone to rival jihadist organizations are going to ISIS. And it’s not a surprise why. While Al-Qaeda’s marketing is still shaky hand cam videos of Osama Bin Laden or his successor. ISIS marketing is slick video production of the new state they are building and it’s battlefield victories.
However what truly makes ISIS marketing tactics so effective is personalized marketing. Personalized marketing, is the most engaging technique marketers can use, and is the most effective in response rates. Messaging through social media channels, they have managed to recruit discontented Muslims to ex-Christian women with their persuasive narrative and offering a sense of belonging.
What can we do to combat it?
Current marketing efforts to curtail the jihadist message is not successful in stemming the flow of recruits. Though there are several ways.
Humour, such as satire and other comedic forms may poke at ISIS self-image of honour and glory, however it may not resonate with those that ISIS is targeting for recruitment.
Posting slick tactics like kill ratios or UN reports of crimes against humanity doesn’t work. It didn’t work in Vietnam and it certainly isn’t working now, because people are not compelled by stats and figures.
Portraying ISIS as brutal thugs is already being done by ISIS’s own marketing efforts, to recruit members. Giving them the free publicity such as when senior world leaders stress how dangerous they are, only make them look more appealing.
Censoring them on social media channels can only go so far. As there are always ways around censors with enough time and dedication as well as alternative channels to spreading one’s message.
In the end, marketing to combat terrorism needs to offer a counter-narrative that is just as appealing. A marketer can try to sell shit, but in the end it’s still shit. ISIS for all of it’s slick and sophistication is still a brutal organization that even Al-Qaeda finds too brutal. However they are at least offering an albeit twisted sense of belonging.
What’s needed is to craft a narrative offering potential recruits, especially those within the Muslim community, a sense of belonging. This may include offering a way for returning fighters, who aren’t so much potential homegrown terrorists as disenchanted customers to ISIS brand and can be the best recruits for a counter-narrative. In the end, military might can decide battles but it takes will to decide wars. Marketers can win this fight, a narrative campaign just has to be used.